Since ancient times, many western peoples have observed yuletide by bringing the branches of various evergreen plants into the household. The ancient Romans particularly valued holly as a symbol of prosperity and immortality; Holly was commonly given as a gift on the Roman holiday of Saturnalia (which later became Christmas).
Ivy, better known in the U.S. as English Ivy, was also valued by the Romans, who wove it into wreaths and garlands. In modern times, here in the U.S., as well as in Europe, the Christmas tree is the dominant “incarnation” of yuletide household greenery. The Christmas tree, usually a fir or spruce for those who prefer a natural tree, enjoys a rich and varied history. In ancient times and early middle ages, Germanic peoples of northern Europe brought Yule Trees into their dwellings as part of their yuletide feast observances. Throughout Europe during the middle ages, Christian-themed mystery plays often featured the “Paradise Tree”, often a fir sapling decorated with apples. As Christmas Eve was considered the name day for Adam and Eve, yuletide season mystery plays often portrayed Eve eating the apple from the paradise tree.
There is some debate as to whether the Yule Tree or the Paradise Tree is the ‘true’ progenitor of the modern Christmas tree (The Origin and Meaning of the Christmas Tree). Whether they are of Christian or pre-Christian origin, Christmas trees and other winter greenery are able to assume many meanings for many individuals, families, and communities. Yuletide decor thus allows a great diversity of personalized expression of hope, joy, unity, sometimes faith, and sometimes humor.
In some Protestant churches, a specialized form of Christmas tree, the Chrismon tree, bears all the symbols of Christ. The Chrismon tree represents not only serves to honor the Christ child, but also represents the beliefs and hopes of the church community.
In whimsical, secular contrast to the Chrismon tree, a “Biohazard tree” was set up at my office. Being cluttered with biotech laboratory accoutrements, the endearingly ugly bright orange Biohazard tree served as the subject for much lunchtime conversation and reminiscenses.
For our home, my partner and I departed from the customary Christmas tree and instead custom-build a wall-mounted Yule altar. Variously inspired by the church altar and the pre-Christian yule tree, our Yule display was focused on the Divine Feminine.
Our yule display was made heart-shaped to symbolize desire and bringing forth of new life. Otherwise, ordinary, store-bought Christmas decorations and fake pine garland were used, with a female “nutcracker soldier” as the centerpiece. Once fully bedecked in insects, ribbon, paper hearts, and snowflakes, our yule display seemed a fine habitat for the sugar plum fairy. Hence, we ended up calling our yule display, “The Fairy Tree”. Our Fairy Tree proved to be better-suited to our house than a Christmas tree; the Fairy Tree persisted for well over a three weeks unmolested by our cat.